Ecuador has begun drilling for oil in the world’s richest rainforest

Ecuador has begun drilling for oil in the world’s richest rainforest
Updated by Originally published by Vox via bioGraphic.

Ecuador is poised to cash in on one of its most valuable assets. But at what cost?

As many of the planet’s last hectares of wilderness give way to roads and towns, farms and soccer fields, gas stations and Starbucks, the Anthropocene marches on. Perhaps nowhere does the struggle between wild and manicured feel more palpable than in Ecuador, and nowhere in Ecuador is the battle for biological and cultural diversity more profound than in Yasuní National Park.


A species of lizard called the banded anole (Anolis stratulatus). Phil Torres

Situated on Ecuador’s easternmost flank with Peru to the south and east and Colombia only a short distance north, the 6,101-square-mile park sits at the confluence of the western Amazon basin, the Andean foothills, and the equator. The park’s boundary encircles one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. A single hectare, an area roughly the size of a soccer field, might boast as many as 655 different kinds of trees, more than all native tree species in the continental US and Canada.

Some 500 fish species and 600 kinds of birds live in Yasuní’s streams and skies. Among the thousands of mammals that call this forest home are the endangered white-bellied spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth) and giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), and the near-threatened golden-mantled tamarin monkey (Saguinus tripartitus). The park is also the ancestral home of three indigenous tribes, the Huaorani, Tagaeri, and Taromenane, who still rely almost exclusively on the rainforest’s abundance for their food, medicine, and shelter.


Parasitic insects make up an estimated 10 percent of all known insect species in the Amazon. Here, the pupae of parasitoid wasps, which developed as larvae inside this caterpillar, are visible in their final stage before emerging as adult wasps. Phil Torres

Beneath this ecological and cultural gem sits another kind of treasure: crude oil. Almost a billion barrels of it, around 20 percent of Ecuador’s untapped oil reserves. (By comparison, North America’s largest oil field, in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, originally held 25 billion barrels.)
For a small country dependent on oil exports for a third of its federal budget, those riches have been tantalizing. Yet Ecuador has resisted, even going so far as to ask other countries to contribute to a campaign to help it avoid extracting Yasuní’s oil. The move wasn’t intended as a bribe, proponents said, but rather as acknowledgement that the health of Amazonian forests has global climate implications.
Then in the spring of 2016, in a move that shocked the international conservation community, Ecuador began trucking the first barrels of crude out of Yasuní. Is this the beginning of the end for one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems? It’s certainly a pivotal moment. The tiny country is now poised to cash in on one of its most valuable assets — but at what cost to Yasuní’s countless inhabitants, and to the world?

To understand how oil extraction begins inside a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve such as Yasuní National Park, we need to step back a decade.

In 2007, Rafael Correa ascended to Ecuador’s presidency in part on the basis of his promise to distance the nation from American interests.

Then in 2008, the country defaulted on some $3 billion worth of debt. Desperate for an influx of cash, Correa struck a deal in 2009, not with the US but with China: oil for cash. The $1 billion loan agreement stipulated that Ecuador’s state oil company, Petroecuador, would sell crude oil to Petrochina, the world’s second-largest publicly traded oil corporation.


The Repsol Oil station, at the entrance of Yasuní National Park. Phil Torres

“At the outset, many people talked about how mutually beneficial this was for both countries,” says Kevin Koenig, Ecuador program director for AmazonWatch, a nonprofit devoted to working with indigenous groups to protect the environment.

But the loans kept coming. In all, China has loaned Ecuador some $15 billion, plus another $7 billion in financing for the development of an oil refinery in Ecuador’s port city of Manta. According to documents obtained by Reuters in 2013, China at the time was responsible for nearly two-thirds of Ecuador’s financing, while holding claim to almost 90 percent of its oil exports.

When the deal between the two countries was first struck, oil prices were soaring. But the value of a barrel of oil has since fallen to roughly half what it was then. Which means Ecuador has to come up with a lot more oil to repay its loans from China. As this need has grown, the crude resting beneath Yasuní has only looked more tempting.


Oil pipelines carry oil from nearby wells across the Shiripuno River, which flows directly through Yasuní National Park. Phil Torres

Ecuador was the first nation to explicitly protect the rights of nature in its constitution, which prohibits the extraction of nonrenewable resources like oil from protected areas. It was in keeping with those regulations that Correa announced the innovative Yasuní-ITT initiative in September 2007.

Launched on the eve of the global economic crisis and well before climate scientists officially declared that a bulk of the world’s oil reserves must be left in the ground to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius or less, the Yasuní-ITT initiative now seems ahead of its time. The oil sitting beneath the Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini (ITT) oil fields at the eastern edge of Yasuní was worth an estimated $7.2 billion in 2007 prices. Correa’s initiative proposed to leave it in the ground, but he wanted the rest of the world to pay Ecuador for half of the oil’s value to do so.

“Ecuador doesn’t ask for charity,” Correa said at the time, “but does ask that the international community share in the sacrifice and compensates us … in recognition of the environmental benefits that would be generated by keeping this oil underground.” What Correa didn’t say at the time was that the initiative also had a plan B: drilling.

It seemed like a no-brainer. Surely other countries would pitch in.

Unfortunately, the initiative came far short of raising the necessary funds. By 2013, the world had only ponied up a scant $13 million in actual donations, with another $200 million in promises. “The world has failed us,” Correa said in a televised address. “I have signed the executive decree for the liquidation of the Yasuní-ITT trust fund and with this, ended the initiative.” Plan B was going into effect.

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